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Hot Rod Empire

Published on Mon, Dec 3, 2018

By: Doug Stokes

BOOK REVIEW – In “Hot Rod Empire” the life and times of Robert E. Petersen are the object of talented motorsport biographer Matt Stone focus.

HOT ROD Empire
By Matt Stone with Gigi Carleton
Forward by Ed Iskenderian
With preface(s) by Gigi Carleton and Bruce Meyer
Motorbooks an imprint of Quarto Group
ISBN: 978-0-7603-6069-9
eISBN: 978-0-7603-6070-5
Hardbound, 208 pages, over 290 photos (color and b/w)
$35.00 US

There are many heroes and legends in the automotive high performance world: the drivers who went faster, further, or who went on driving longer than all the rest. There are almost as many celebrated designers, engineers, mechanics, and constructors who built and animated their creations; giving them the power and the strength to propel those drivers to fame and glory.

And the long list of motorsports magazines that Robert E. Petersen pioneered told the world about those builders, drivers and their machines in exciting terms, with great action photos, and articles that challenged young people across the country to have some fun with their cars, to make them better, faster, cooler-looking and to do it with their own hands in their own garages.

Hot Rod Magazine No. 1 in 1948
Hot Rod Magazine No. 1 in 1948

That’s not to say that some people weren’t already working on their cars to get more performance out of them … but it is to say that in January of 1948, Petersen started printing magazine adventure stories about those machines, and started telling people (out loud in print) that they could do stuff to their car that would make it more fun to drive. Petersen’s new school snapper wrappers went about whipping up and encouraging the excitement, showing everyone how it was done and who had already done it and who was (Hey! right now, as we speak pal) having a heck of time peeling out in a white storm cloud of vulcanized tire smoke and leaving two fat old tire streaks on the macadam to prove that they’d been there.

In “Hot Rod Empire” the life and times of Robert E. Petersen (never “Bob” so far as I know, but often “Pete”—a growing-up nick name that stuck) are the object of talented motorsport biographer Matt Stone focus.

Stone’s story quickly broadens out from one young GI, just back from WW2, who was about as nutball about cars as they come, and focused that gasoline-fueled energy, that zeal, on preaching a sermon of speed through colorful car shows and then publications that caught the spirit of the times perfectly, launching a true “Hot Rod Empire” and giving credibility and substance to a new and unique part of America’s love of wheels.

(They were called “The Greatest Generation”, just back from kicking the Axis’ collective asses, having had a hand in officially saving the world from a return to the dark ages or worse … they were back baby, and ready for Robert’s Rules of Rodding.)

Hot Rod Empire by Matt Stone
Hot Rod Empire by Matt Stone

Stone’s story follows the man who, in this book, is almost always referred to as “Mister Petersen”—not because he ever demanded it as far as I know, but because of the level of respect that virtually everyone in the biz came to have for him. From one thin black and white magazine, Petersen built an honest-to-goodness publishing dynasty which, printed something like a hundred magazine titles and specialized how-to (guess what about?) soft cover books.

Of course Petersen (oops … Mister Petersen) didn’t do it all by himself. Like the greatest generals and the most successful businessmen, built that rightfully-referred to “Empire” with the help of a cast of characters who, themselves have carved out their revered places in the annals of Hot Rod history.

Those stalwarts include Wally Parks, a giant of the movement whose calm leadership and vision took drag racing off the streets to and turned it into a legitimate pursuit, and multi-million dollar industry by forming the National Hot Rod Association in 1951 with Mister Petersen’s backing.

Other names that permeate Stone’s accounting include Dean Batchelor, a fresh-from-the-war and dye-in-the-wool car nut who was one of the leading early enablers in the movement, and who went on himself to chronicle and further widen interest in high performance vehicles of all types and disciplines, including serving as the editor of Road & Track, a magazine that featured more sporty cars and string-back driving gloves than multiple Stromberg 97’s, but still championed performance in its own meter.

As some would say … it was in the stars to happen; when the Petersen Automotive Museum was being designed and born in the early ‘90’s, Batchelor was back as a consultant and had a strong hand the layout and upbeat tempo of the world-class facility.

Others who you’ll run across in this fast-moving biography include: Ed Iskenderian, the 97 year-old cam-grinding legend who wrote this book’s forward; George Barris, car customizer supreme; Carroll Shelby the slow-talking/quick-thinking king of the Cobra Clan; Bob D’Olivo, the visionary photographer/art director who gave so many Petersen publications their unique visual flair; James Garner, a close personal friend and, like Petersen a fully-engaged car nut; funny guy and certifiable car-collector Jay Leno; cartoonist and magazine editor Tom Medley; multi-disciplined racing artist/cartoonist; Roy Rogers (yeah THAT Roy Rogers); Ford racing maven Bill Stroppe; Miss Hurst herself Linda Vaughn; and last (but only alphabetically) least Alex Xydias, yet another high performance enabler of the highest ranking … one, who like all of the above, gave legitimacy (without a trace of stuffiness) to the hot rod empire that Petersen was forging a quarter-mile (and a lot of printer’s ink at a time.)

There are many more people of the faith that Stone features in his lively “Empire”, but for sake of space we’ll here hope that readers of this review will get their hands on this book and find out about so many more of the people that were both an influence on and themselves influenced by this one remarkable guy.

A serious-looking group of ex-servicemen … having fun (seriously)
A serious-looking group of ex-servicemen … having fun (seriously)

… And the Petersen magazine titles, yeah the titles: Car Craft, CARtoons, Custom Cars, Cycle, Cycletoons, Four Wheel and Off Road , Guns & Ammo, Honk, Hot Rod, Hunting, Motorcyclists, Motor Life, Motor Trend, Mountain Biker, Rod & Custom, Sassy, SPORT, ‘Teen, Tiger Beat, to name but a few …

I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention Petersen’s contributions to professional motorsports which included lending the names Motor Trend and Hot Rod to major racing events at Riverside Raceway that help to intensify the public’s knowledge, appreciation, and acceptance of the sport.

My guess (since this review is running on is that many of the readers are at least familiar with the lavish Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. The museum’s genesis was Mister Petersen’s personal car collection (and a hefty endowment) and today it has taken its place as one of the very best in the business.

Stone’s book is beautifully illustrated with page after page (after page!) of memory-jogging stuff from the pages many of above-mentioned books (just the car of ones for this particular volume of course).

There’s one other very important thing about this book: and it’s Gigi Carleton’s name in that “with” line in the author listing. With some forty years working with Petersen as his executive secretary her work with Stone on this book shows on almost every page.

In case I’ve not made it pretty evident by now, this is the true, authentic, and direct story of a guy who got very rich hanging out with a bunch of lunatic hot rodders and having the foresight, and the talent to tell the story.

It would not be fair to leave Margie Petersen out of this portrait … Petersen’s wife of some 43 years and his almost constant companion who counterbalanced the rough hot rod side of this equation with stunning good looks, grace, and a lifetime of work for social causes which benefitted greatly from her hard work.

From car shows, to a whole galaxy of buff magazines, to racing promotion, to setting the path for a great automotive museum, this guy, Bob “Pete” Mister Robert E. Petersen’s story is one hell of a great ride. –DS

50th anniversary of Hot Rod
Magazine (from the Stokes collection)

LINER NOTE: without taking my socks off, I count this book as the fifth great motor-bio that Matt Stone (a Petersen employee himself for many years serving as executive editor of both Motor Trend and Classic Motor Trend magazines) has penned. His other four deal in turn with car culture icons: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Paul Newman, and Ed Iskenderian … and they’re all just as readable and filled with indelible motoring memories as this one. –DS

EDITOR’S NOTE: Reviewer Stokes has something in common with book subject Robert E. Petersen. He and Petersen have both been honored with the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Lifetime Achievement Award.

“MPG” is a professional automobile industry association comprised of members who include writers, editors, photographers, designers, analysts, manufacturer’s representatives, and PR practitioners.
The special award was established in 1994 to honor the memory of one of the MPG’s founding fathers … the legendary Dean Batchelor, journalist, photographer, historian, consummate professional, and mentor to many in the business.

The award is voted on and bestowed by the MPG Board of Directors and has been given fourteen times since 1995. Peterson was honored posthumously with the award in 2005, his wife Margie accepting the award in his honor.

Stokes, who received the award in 2015, says “there was some sort of mixup.” adding, “they’ll be asking for it back any day now.”

Not the case Doug, not the case. – LACar

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